Scot Finnie: Stuxnet was a wake-up call, but don't fall back asleep

Two U.S. presidents thought sophisticated cyberattacks on an Iranian uranium-enrichment plant were a better bet than alternatives that could lead to war. This isn't the place to debate the politics, but I do want to urge senior IT leaders to pay attention, not just to the

release of Stuxnet and its subsequent, unintended escape into the wild, but also to the potential for retaliation that could affect their organizations.

Speaking at a March 2011 TED conference, security consultant Ralph Langner said of the malware that we now know Israel and the U.S. released: "The payload was rocket science; it's way above everything that we have ever seen before."

In September 2010, Computerworld's Gregg Keizer described Stuxnet as a " 'groundbreaking' piece of malware so devious . . . [and] sophisticated . . . that the security researchers who tore it apart" believed it was the work of state-sponsored professionals. They were right.

The revelation that the U.S. and Israel were behind Stuxnet, as first reported June 1 in The New York Times, leaves us with troubling questions. Has the U.S. abandoned the moral high ground, inviting potential reprisals from around the world? Have the U.S. and Israel inadvertently delivered the most powerful cyberweapon ever devised to their foes? Should we now expect cyberattacks targeting business, government or infrastructure? And if so, what should organizations prepare for?

Stuxnet's payload was highly customized to a very specific target. The first step was the use of "beacon" malware inserted into Iran's Natanz uranium-enrichment center, reportedly by Israeli agents. David E. Sanger, a reporter for the Times, broke the story of the U.S. and Israeli co-creation of Stuxnet. In his book Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, released on June 5, he reports how specific banks of centrifuges were targeted for disruption and damage through the manipulation of their Siemens controllers. The beacon software recorded the normal operation of the controllers and centrifuges, phoning that information home so the development team could focus on areas of vulnerability. Many phishing exploits employ the same technique, perhaps with less sophistication.

A version of Stuxnet is now available for download on the Internet. While it's unlikely that Stuxnet's payload will be directly harnessed and turned against U.S. interests, the history of cybercrime informs us that adaptation and copycatting are undoubtedly well under way.

Langner recently gave his opinion in the Times, writing: "While it has been said that Stuxnet was a wake-up call, the only people who woke up were military forces and intelligence services around the globe, along with some terrorists and criminals. Everybody else just fell back to coma, which is puzzling and depressing because protection against cyber weapons is possible." He goes on to argue that the most important threat comes not from nations but from cyberterrorists, against whom military deterrence is powerless.

Now that the world knows about the origins of Stuxnet (and about the origins of the apparently related Duqu and Flame cyber-espionage programs), it's time for U.S. businesses and infrastructure operators to wake up. Few, if any, are safe. The United States may be prepared to wage cyberwar, but it's clear we haven't even begun to prepare to defend against cyber-espionage and sabotage.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can contact him at and follow him on Twitter ( @ScotFinnie).

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Scot Finnie

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place